TEACHING POS ED: THE BANAL AND THE PROFOUND

David Bott

“I don’t profess to be profound, but I do lay claim to common sense.”
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.

It was at the very beginning – in my opening remarks – of a Discovering Positive Education course last month that I shared a thought that I had never really considered before:

When we are teaching Positive Education to adults, we subtly but unavoidably meander between the banal and the profound.

If you looked at a random little slice of the raw content from any of our workshops, you would probably be pretty underwhelmed. For example, you might find a reference to the well-known ‘Study of Adult Development’ at Harvard University[1] that has been ongoing since 1938. Study Director, Professor Robert Waldinger recently concluded in his TEDx Talk that “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier”.

So, 80 years and twenty-five million dollars later, the world’s most renowned research institution has found conclusive evidence that relationships matter.  Wow. You could’ve just asked my three-year-old son and he would have told you that, in two seconds, for free. Banal.

But then, for many people, something weird happens.

Educators at our workshop, who have been listening to this Harvard research, turn to page 68 in their course booklet and find an activity based on University of California researcher Shelly Gable’swork on the link between relationship strength and the way we respond when hearing good news[2]. It turns out that, if we’re really honest, many of us realise that we use proportionally more ‘Active Constructive Responding’ - genuine amplification of good news - with colleagues we barely know than with the people in our lives that matter the most.

Back in 2013, when I first completed this activity myself (see original notes in image below), I noted upon reflection that I tend to almost always ‘amplify’ good news shared by students whereas I’m more likely to ‘deflate’, ‘steal’, or ‘stall’ my wife’s sharing of good news. Now, I want to you to know that my wife and I have a beautiful, nurturing and supportive relationship that I cherish. So that single pie chart that I drew stopped me in my tracks. Sure, the activity is, in some ways, a contrived, simplified, unscientific snapshot of my life, but it undoubtedly depicted an uncomfortable truth. My wife is the most important person in my life and yet, here, in black and white, is a part of our daily interaction, our relationship that I am, relatively speaking, neglecting. Profound.

I still have these pie charts from the 2013 course pinned to my noticeboard in my study as a reminder.  ‘Relationships matter’: banal. ‘It is so easy, in the busyness of life, for clearing today’s emails to seem more important than generously sharing in my wife’s joy’: profound.

David

Original notes from 2013 course reflecting on typical styles of responding to good news.

And, for the adults who attend our three-day courses, there are typically dozens of moments of meandering between banality and profundity. These moments might be about what triggers flow states in their lives, or the experiential power of writing a gratitude letter, or harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity to learn to juggle in 15 minutes.

It really is a privilege to share these meandering moments with our course participants. These striking insights of profound, authentic realisation often catalyse positive behavioural change in educators and even in school systems.

But here’s the thing...

In ten years of teaching Pos Ed to students at Geelong Grammar, one of the hardest lessons we’ve learned is how challenging it is to nurture this meandering in kids. It’s easy enough to share the research, theory, philosophy and application of wellbeing science with students but cultivating that profound ‘lightbulb moment’ is much, much harder than it is with adults. The banal remains, but the profound, catalysing moments are missing.

In part, this is because most students haven’t had the richness and depth of life experience upon which perspective pivots. They haven’t had the chance to fail to genuine engage with their wife’s good news. They haven’t yet been too busy to lose sight of what matters. And so, with Year 9 students, the above ACR intervention is often, at best, a nice, cute, forgettable classroom activity.

In part, the profound is often missing because we are still working out how to fundamentally connect wellbeing science with what really matters in the present lived experience of school kids. But we are getting there... gradually.

A picture book created in Year 10 Positive EducationI will never forget the first time our Year 10 students, at the end of a Pos Ed lesson series on ‘Meaning and Purpose’, created picture storybooks for a local primary school. This particular primary school was attended by many young children from underprivileged backgrounds and with very challenging home lives. Our Year 10 students were aware that many of the primary students received very few gifts at Christmas time. So our students completed the handmade storybooks, took them to the primary school, and gave them over as gifts. They shared lunch with the kids, and read them the books they had created. The little kids were so happy and so overwhelmingly grateful. It was a beautiful, moving experience for me – particularly when we got back on the bus to return to our school and I found that many of our boys and girls were in tears; affected by the deep sense of contribution and impact they had just experienced.

Learning about research findings showing that serving something greater than oneself is associated with high levels of wellbeing: banal. Experiencing what it feels like to have a small but powerful positive impact on the life of a young child: profound.

But you don’t have to bus kids to another school to potentiate profound realisation. We’ve seen it occur, in some kids for example, after practicing mindfulness mediation or in the middle of writing a ‘forgiveness letter’.

Cultivating the preconditions for a young student to meander between banal and profound therefore, becomes the ‘gold standard’ in the teaching of wellbeing science to students.

That’s not to say it’s easy or that we’ll always get it right. But when we do, Positive Education can be as profoundly transformational for a child as it is for adults.

REFERENCES

  1. http://adultdevelopment.wix.com/harvardstudy
  2. Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228–245.
David Bott
David Bott


David Bott is the Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education. David has been involved in training thousands of teachers from hundreds of schools around the world in designing, implementing and sustaining individual and whole-school approaches to wellbeing.